We left the coastal plain of North Carolina on May 12, visiting Carver Creek State Park (SP) in the Piedmont the next day. Here we successfully searched for Nestronia umbellula, a new genus for us, and a hemiparasitic shrub in family Santalaceae, which includes mistletoes. A hemiparasite derives some nutrients by parasitizing other plants, often the roots, but also has some chlorophyll and photosynthesizes as well. A bonus was a great look at an Eastern Ratsnake, a pretty common species that we had not seen before, though we have seen it twice since!
Continuing west, we reached the northwest corner of South Carolina, where there is a tiny section of the Appalachian Mountains. Our target here was Oconee Bells, Shortia galacifolia, known from only ten counties in southern Appalachia. Most of its prime habitat was flooded when the Keowee River was dammed to make Lake Jocassee, but it can still be seen in Devil’s Fork SP, where we found many beautiful colonies along the Oconee Bell Loop Trail. It flowers in March, so we only saw fruit, but it was still very exciting to see. On this short hike we also added about 30 plant species to our South Carolina list, because we had not previously been in the mountains in this state.
The next day we easily found Pyrularia, another obscure hemiparasite, in the nearby Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Now heading roughly north into the heart of the Appalachians, we looked for Swamp Pink, Helonias bullata, along the Pink Beds Loop Trail, in North Carolina, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although this is a well-known site for this rarity, we could not find it, a disappointment. But over the next four days we found one exciting new genus each day. On Mt. Jefferson, in the interesting Amphibolite Mountains, which we explored in 2018, we saw Convallaria pseudomajalis, an exquisite native species that is very similar to garden Lilies-of-the-Valleys.
Crossing into Virginia, we located an obscure fern, Crepidomanes intricata, the Weft Fern, southwest of Mt. Rogers, VA, on the Tennessee line. This species, as far as is known, exists only as a gametophyte, never reaching the second (sporophyte) life stage, present in nearly all ferns. This tiny plant looks like a moss or even a filamentous algae, and we were only able to find it thanks to a very clear location description with photos on iNaturalist. Crepidomanes is one of five genera in the Filmy Fern family (Hymenophyllaceae) in the U.S., one of the most difficult vascular plant families to see in the continent. This was our third genus in the family, so it became our 235th family (of 239 North America north of Mexico) in which we have seen at least 50% of the native genera!
In the Pandapas Pond area, near Blacksburg, we saw about 65 plants of Whorled Pogonia, Isotria verticillata, an interesting orchid that had been a bit of a nemesis over the years. Five plants were in flower and two had fruit from the previous year. Our last stop in Virginia was Poor Mountain, near Roanoke, VA. This site has the majority of the world’s population of Piratebush, Buckleya distichophylla, our third new hemiparasite in family Santalaceae in eight days!
We have been working for a number of years to see all the national parks (NPs) in the U.S. and Canada that can be reached by road. At the start of this year we had just one still to visit in each country, excluding Gateway Arch NP in St. Louis, which preserves nothing natural. It is only about 0.2 x 0.7 miles and contains an arch with an observation tower, a museum, and a courthouse. It would better have been classified as a National Historic Park.
We addressed our U.S. omission in the third week of May by exploring New River Gorge NP, in southern West Virginia. We spent six days in the area and enjoyed it very much. It is particularly known for its scenery, rafting, and coal era history. There is little camping within the park but we stayed nearby at Little Beaver SP and Babcock SP.
There was quite a bit of rain while we were there, but fortunately we managed to squeeze in a paddle the first day, before the rains increased the river current and made it difficult to paddle. Trails we especially liked included the Glade Creek and Endless Wall. The views from the Main Overlook, the Turkey Spur Overlook, and the Grandview Rim Trail in between them, were lovely. I had really looked forward to seeing the Appalachian Flatrock habitat at Sandstone Falls, but it was disappointing, with many non-native plants.
Most of our previous time in the state was spent at high elevations near the Virginia border, so we added about one hundred lower elevation plants to our West Virginia list. Only one of these was new for us, the rare sedge Cymophyllus fraserianus, which is endemic to the southern Appalachians. (Note: the word endemic is used differently in medicine and biology. In the former, it simply means that it occurs in an area. In the latter, it means that it occurs in an area and nowhere else.) We saw many Cymophyllus along the Old Sewell Road in Babcock SP.
Continuing northeast to the Allegheny Plateau, we visited two sites I’ve wanted to see for long time. The first was Cranberry Glades, which has some of the southernmost classic boreal peat bogs, which are easily accessible via a boardwalk loop. Here we saw Small Cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos, at it southernmost occurrence in the New World (the commercial cranberry is a closely related but larger native species). While on the boardwalk, I was pleased to happen upon Long-stalk Holly, Ilex collina, an Appalachian endemic found in only about 20 counties.
The second site was the Dolly Sods Wilderness, a very scenic high-elevation area (mostly around 4000 feet), with low, heath-like shrubland interspersed with clusters of gray boulders, creating a very aesthetically pleasing tableau. There were a phenomenal number of backpackers there on Memorial Day weekend, but we were lucky enough to secure a nice campsite. We hiked from there to a lovely bog, where there were Round-leaved Sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) and multiple singing Canada Warblers, which are always fun to encounter on the breeding grounds.
In between these two sites we drove to the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia at 4863 feet elevation. I’ve probably walked through the beautiful red spruce forest here half a dozen times before, but despite significant effort, had not yet seen the reclusive Appalachian Cottontail. This time our luck changed, and 45 minutes after sunrise we found one, which we were able to watch for 90 minutes! This leaves us just two lagomorphs (rabbits, hares, and pikas), out of about twenty, left to see in North America north of Mexico.
As we left West Virginia on May 30, heading to the Delmarva Peninsula, our scorecard for native plant genus searches was as follows: 18 successful, 4 unsuccessful, and 4 serendipitous (first found at a location where we were not looking for them). This 82% success rate is anomalously high, and will certainly come down later in the year when we have many searches planned back in Florida, but we’re enjoying it while it lasts!